Garbage-to-gas progress may open green frontier

The thought of turning your dinner table leftovers, old cardboard boxes and even dirty diapers into fuel for your car might sound ambitious, or even absurd.

But scientists, bioengineers and profit-minded business people say they can do it, and it’s becoming a part of Iowa’s advanced biofuel landscape, according to an IowaWatch study involving dozens of interviews with industry leaders, engineers, environmental experts, biofuel economists and government officials.

The budding advanced biofuel industry stretches from Emmetsburg in the west to Marion in the east in Iowa and to several other parts of the country.

“It’s almost a limitless opportunity for producing fuel,” said Matt Merritt, director of public relations at biofuel producer POET-DSM in Emmetsburg. “The potential there is enormous.”

Although business and political challenges remain, engineers have concocted an expensive cocktail of chemicals called enzymes that are too small to see with the naked eye, but can devour landfill trash and turn it into a new fuel that can run the family car.

Often called “trashanol” in the industry, this garbage-to-gas process contributes to energy independence. Many scientists say it’s greener than corn ethanol. And, trashanol deals with one environmental problem that no other biofuel can claim – landfills and the earth-warming methane gas they produce.

While scientists are optimistic about trashanol’s environmental benefit, and business leaders are working to make it economically feasible, they acknowledge many challenges lay ahead because it never has been produced on a commercial scale in the United States and political obstacles are hard to predict.

For example, no can say at this time what the Environmental Protection Agency will do with the Renewable Fuel Standard, a government rule mandating a minimal amount of ethanol and a critically important factor in making advanced biofuels economically viable. The EPA is to decide in June whether or not to reduce sustainable fuel requirements.

Trashanol is one form of biofuel classified as cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol is derived from plant fiber, such as in corn stover, switchgrass, wood residue, and hybrid willow and poplar trees.

Iowa is the largest producer of corn ethanol in the nation, but alternative forms of biofuel also are planting roots in the state. Companies like POET-DSM and DuPont in central Iowa are leading the state into the alternative biofuel frontier. Both companies use corn stover – the material left on the field after the corn harvest – to make ethanol. POET-DSM anticipates commercial scale production by June, and DuPont in Nevada, Iowa, by late this year.

When finished, the DuPont facility is expected to be the world’s largest cellulosic ethanol plant.

In eastern Iowa, even newer developments are underway. A company called Fiberight could soon start feeding off landfill waste to make trashanol on an industrial scale for the first time ever. Craig Stuart-Paul, Fiberight’s chief executive officer, has plans for a $9 million operation called a pre-processing plant in Marion.

“We feel that once this starts, we’ll have a stream of individuals coming by looking at this facility to see what they can do with their waste,” Marion Mayor Allen Bouska said.

Moreover, Fiberight is converting an old corn ethanol plant in a $42 million project just outside of Blairstown at 2154 78th St., which will turn landfill gunk into fuel.

And, soon, Iowa City may join the exploration of this fuel frontier. City officials have been negotiating with Fiberight over a deal for a pre-processing plant that would sort out suitable waste from Iowa City’s municipal landfill and truck it to Blairstown.

The City Council expects to make a final decision next year.

The process and the problem of profitability

Even with the industry in its beginning stages of commercialization, researchers are confident in the viability of making cellulosic ethanol but raise concerns about its economics.

“The problem is that the industry just hasn’t proven itself yet,” said Jerald Schnoor, University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering professor. “They’re not able to make commercial scale ethanol and be profitable.”

Profitability concerns stem from the high costs of enzymes used to help convert the material into ethanol. “They’re just expensive to make and the companies that make them have to make a profit,” said Laura Jarboe, assistant professor in chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State University.

Jan Koninck, global business director of biorefineries at DuPont, said as the industry advances, the cost of enzymes will go down and their function will improve.

The Renewable Fuel Standard and hitting the blend wall

When technology for advanced biofuels started taking off, federal lawmakers had high hopes for a massive expansion of the ethanol industry.

In an effort to accelerate growth for domestic fuels, Congress passed a law in 2005 mandating that transportation fuel sold in the United States contain a minimum amount of renewable fuels. Expanded in 2007, the mandate -called the Renewable Fuel Standard – required that the country’s transportation fuel contain at least 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels annually by 2022, with 21 billion coming from advanced biofuels, including 16 billion from cellulosic ethanol alone.

But the cellulosic industry has been unable to meet annual mandates for renewable fuel. So the EPA has proposed trimming them. For 2014, the mandate for all renewable fuels has been reduced 16 percent to 15.21 billion gallons, with cellulosic ethanol getting slashed to only 17 million gallons this year – down from the original 2014 goal of 1.75 billion. The proposal is open for public comment, and the EPA should reach a final decision in June.

“I guess it will give some lawyers some jobs to try to figure out how to end a piece of legislation that, when it was written, was so out of touch with reality,” said Henry Lee, public policy professor at Harvard University. “You can’t create a mandate for something that does not exist commercially.”

Lee said the law was clearly an aspirational standard.

Passmore, the former Iogen executive, said uncertainty and fear about changing the Renewable Fuel Standard caused investors to hold back on essential funding for the industry. And now that several companies are making headway on commercial scale projects, he said the Renewable Fuel Standard ironically serves as another challenge to its own objective – expanding the industry.

The blend wall and market issues with higher blends

Another concern facing cellulosic ethanol is the blend wall, or the maximum amount of ethanol that can be blended in with gasoline.

The U.S. standard mixture of ethanol and gasoline is E10, which means 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. Because corn ethanol produces more than 10 percent, the cellulosic biofuel industry confronts a saturated market.

The EPA approved the use of E15, which increased the size of the ethanol market, but it hasn’t yet become the industry standard.

But straight biofuels and higher blends of ethanol, like E85, call for specialized pumps and cars that have limited availability throughout the nation. The expense of building E85 infrastructure is sometimes paid at the gas station’s expense, or split with the fuel supplier on the contingency of selling only their fuel at the pump.

Most E85 infrastructures are concentrated in the Midwest because proximity to the ethanol cuts down on transportation.

But if trash ethanol becomes successful, it would open the door for ethanol production in all corners of the nation and on a year-round basis.

Cars developed to run on E85 are called Flex Fuel cars. They don’t cost manufacturers much more to make than regular cars, but many consumers lack the knowledge about Flex Fuel cars for those cars to become a major player in the auto industry.

“There’s some people who bought the cars and don’t even realize that it’s Flex Fuel,” said Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. “There are more cars out there that can [take E85] but don’t even use it.”

Business and agricultural experts don’t see the industry as a detriment to an agricultural economy.

“I think, in general, being in a place where this innovation is beginning and where we’re leading, that’s always a good place for Iowa,” said Tina Hoffman, marketing and communication director at the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

She said with the world’s growing population, less demand for corn ethanol gives way for Iowa to better feed the world.

Cellulosic ethanol carbon footprint

Biofuel experts and engineers who have studied cellulosic ethanol say it offers a much smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels and even corn ethanol. “That is one of the reasons that we say that cellulosic biofuels are more sustainable than biofuels produced form food crops,” George Philippidis, professor of sustainable energy of the University of South Florida, said.

But skeptics are raising their eyebrows at this seemingly cure-all process. An InsideClimate News asserts that biomass plants release up to 50 percent more carbon dioxide than coal plants and have gotten away with the emissions through regulatory loopholes.

The Biomass Power Association called the report “an ’81-page editorial’ that misconstrues state and federal regulations.” And many biofuel engineers and researchers are optimistic about trashanol’s benefits.

“It’s likely more expensive than corn ethanol, but it has a very good greenhouse gas number,” Northey said. “That is an advantage that cellulosic ethanol has over corn-based ethanol that may allow it to find a market even if we don’t go to higher blending levels than 10 percent.”

This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news Website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.